Arrests loom over Egypt's political dialogue

STORY: Egypt is about to launch a carefully choreographed political dialog, but it follows nine years of cracking down on dissent.

Prisoner releases are supposed to happen in parallel, but critics say the process is too slow.

And the once-powerful but now outlawed Muslim Brotherhood is excluded.

Tens of thousands of dissidents or critics have been jailed as President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi has consolidated his position, according to rights groups.

Journalist Khaled Dawoud, a senior member of the liberal Dostour Party, says he's planning to take part in the dialog which is expected to start in the coming weeks, but authorities need to stop making arrests and lift media restrictions.

"We believe, as a civic movement and as the Dostour party, that the release of all prisoners of conscience who have not been charged with violence is what will make the national dialogue successful. So we can feel, as Egyptian citizens, that the regime is serious about opening up the political climate."

Sisi, then armed forces chief, removed the Brotherhood's Mohamed Mursi from power in 2013, after mass protests against his rule.

Egypt then launched its most ferocious crackdown against the group, which it calls terrorist and accuses of using violent means, an accusation the Brotherhood denies.

It handed down death sentences and long prison terms for its leaders and drove its members underground or abroad. Security forces gunned down hundreds of supporters at a protest camp.

Acting leader Ibrahim Munir, who is in London, said the dialog can't work without the group.

"Dialog is really needed, yes, but it has to include everyone. Excluding the Muslim Brotherhood from the dialog, or any other groups, I believe will not lead to the required atmosphere for Egypt to rule by in the coming years."

A presidential amnesty committee is processing thousands of requests to free some of those jailed under Sisi's leadership.

Egyptian officials present the dialog as heralding a new phase of Sisi's rule made possible by improvements in security and political stability and dubbed "the new republic."

Some moderate opposition figures have been brought in from the margins and given a platform on tightly controlled domestic media for the first time in years.

The dialog follows steps, including publication of a human rights strategy, that appear intended to address Western criticism.

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